News State Tasmania News ‘The guilt just ate at me’: Port Arthur survivors

‘The guilt just ate at me’: Port Arthur survivors

Port Arthur survivors break their silence.
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Peter and Pauline Grenfell were on a short holiday in Tasmania when they made a last-minute decision to spend a few hours at the Port Arthur Historic Site before heading home to Melbourne that night.

But at about 1:30pm, local man Martin Bryant entered the busy Broad Arrow Cafe at the historic site armed with a high-powered weapon and opened fire, killing 12 people and injuring 17 in just the first 15 seconds.

The Grenfells were standing at the toilet block nearby when they heard “this loud banging noise” coming from the cafe.

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Initially they thought it was a gas explosion, until people began running and yelling ‘he’s got a gun and he’s shooting’.

They then saw the gunman emerge from the cafe and fire in their direction.

“We were just so panicked. We started to move away from the cafe,” Ms Grenfell said.

“Everybody was heading towards an oval. We didn’t feel safe going to the oval; we thought we’re just going to be sitting ducks there so we decided to head up Jetty Road.”

Also on Jetty Road, the main road out of the site, was Nanette Mikac, carrying three-year-old Madeline and walking with six-year-old Alannah, her daughters.

The Grenfells joined them as shots continued to ring out from the site.

“They were trying to get out, same as us,” Ms Grenfell said.

“The older of the two children was very fearful and her mum said to her: ‘We’re safe now, pumpkin’. And she seemed to feel better then.”

‘The bullet hits you before you hear the sound’

Peter and Pauline Grenfell in a photo taken shortly before the couple went to Port Arthur.
Peter and Pauline Grenfell in a photo taken shortly before the couple went to Port Arthur. Photo: ABC

Justin Noble was a New South Wales police officer on a “second honeymoon” at Port Arthur.

He recognised the gun Bryant was carrying as he walked out of the cafe and into the car park, an AR-15, military-style weapon.

“I’ve witnessed what they can do on firing ranges. They fire a bullet at supersonic,” he said.

“In other words, the bullet hits you before you hear the sound. I said to my wife: ‘We’re in deep shit’.”

With more than 500 people at the site that day, there were scenes of terror, disbelief and confusion.

Mr Noble said people were in shock.

“They sort of froze, they didn’t understand what was going on,” he said.

“I was going around pushing people off the site, telling them that they had to get out, off the site, to take cover.”

‘A mother and her two children saved us’

Ms Grenfell said on Jetty Road, she was terrified for the two Mikac children and desperate to get them to safety.

“I remember at least two cars driving past. They didn’t stop, they just kept going,” Ms Grenfell said.

“We must have been about 50 metres from the toll booth [exit] as this car pulled up and stopped. We thought: ‘Thank God, somebody’s going to pick them up and get them out of here’.”

But it was a yellow Volvo, driven by Bryant.

Ms Grenfell recalls seeing Nanette Mikac walk towards the car, thinking it was a way out.

“The problem was she walked right into him,” she said.

Peter Grenfell recalls standing almost at the passenger side door of Bryant’s car.

“That’s when I seen the gun on the front seat and I yelled out, ‘It’s him, run’.”

Peter and Pauline Grenfell were able to take cover behind a tree but Nanette, Madeline and Alannah Mikac were unable to escape.

All three were shot dead before Bryant returned to his vehicle and continued his killing spree.

“A mother and her two children saved us. They saved us, and I was always just so sorry we couldn’t save them,” Ms Grenfell said.

“They gave us the precious seconds to move away. So, yes, we were lucky and we were fortunate but that doesn’t take away the pain of what happened. That stays with you.”

‘Why couldn’t we do something to save their lives?’

In the following weeks, the Grenfells learned that Walter Mikac wanted to know of his family’s last moments.

The couple said they felt deeply for his loss and agreed to meet.

“That was his family and he had a right to know that at least they didn’t suffer too much,” Ms Grenfell said.

“We all cried together. We felt, what could we do, why couldn’t we do something to save their lives?

“Reality was, we couldn’t. Not without being killed. But I just felt so guilty. The guilt just ate at me.”

Peter Grenfell said: “To be in that position and tell somebody what had happened, [that] you were the last person to see his family alive.

“It was very hard. Very hard. But you cope. Every day as I get up, I look at it as a bonus.”